From Thule to the moon

  • Published
  • By Maj. Rachael Nussbaum
  • 821st Support Squadron

As I sat down to write my commander’s commentary, the question I had most in mind was, “What could I write that the Airmen of the 21st Space Wing would find interesting?” I could write an article on the core values, put together something on lessons learned after a year in the Artic, or give my thoughts after a year in command.  One of those would likely be interesting to a few personnel on Pete and possibly even garner some interest and discussion around the wing. Contemplating these options, I realized I had very little idea what life was like for most of the 21st SW personnel. Thule is so very different than any other base that I would argue it is more comparable to a base on the moon than any other location. Before you laugh, and turn the page, permit me one more paragraph to illustrate how I can argue this with a straight face. 

A life-threatening emergency medical evacuation from Thule took 44 hours. The Apollo 13 timeline from explosion to safe return was under 90 hours and for roughly 20 of those they were still heading toward the moon. Apollo 11 from takeoff to moon landing was about 103 hours; Thule has a year-round resupply every 168 hours. For practical planning purposes, Thule Air Base could well be called Thule Moon Base. 

Other factors make Thule quite like a future moon base: the requirement to generate all our own power and extract our water, putting on layers of protective gear before stepping outside and the need to take shelter at relatively short-notice from storms, which are serious enough to drive an annual exercise. The last argument I’ll make, though I could make others, are the odd hours of sunlight and darkness. A “day” on the moon is about 700 hours, while on Thule there are two “days,” each lasts roughly 2,000 hours – plus about 180 more normal days. The truth is, Thule’s situation can be extrapolated to what a moon base would endure. 

Other than environmental parallels, one of Thule’s major missions is to support transshipment of materiel, personnel and supplies to more remote outposts, which is quite likely to be a primary mission of a moon base. Which means, when it comes to such a base, several generations of 21st SW and 821st Air Base Group leadership, from the wing commander through key expert non-commissioned officers, have learned critical lessons in logistics management, communications support, base design, construction at a distance, and the control and guidance of third-parties who desire to use the base. These lessons could be leveraged for doctrine development to aid today’s Airmen to become tomorrow’s spacemen.  

While serving in Air Combat Command, I learned a truism in the fighter community is “the last fighter pilot has already been born.” We are making such strides forward in automation and drone technology that the fifth generation may well be the last manned fighter aircraft ever developed. I would argue that it is also true that “the first spaceman to serve a tour on the moon has been born.” If that spaceman is going to be an American, then Thule may well become very interesting to the Airmen of the 21st SW, and to all Airmen who hope or expect to lead the first generation of spacemen.